Return to the burn

A few weeks back I had a little reflection about how I have noticed yoga being conceptualised in the mainstream world these days – increasingly, as a form of physical exercise.  In my very first post, I suggested that yoga can be whatever the individual wants it to be.  But if it’s ok with you, I’d like to take that back.

I feel as if yoga is lost.  I notice myself feeling dispirited.  I notice this little knot of possessiveness growing inside me.  A part of me wants to take yoga away from those who misuse it.  This is not rational, because it’s really none of my business how other people use or benefit from yoga in their lives.  My ego thinks it’s the patron saint of yoga.

The above photo was posted on one of my favourite yoga websites recently – I’m assuming as some kind of representation of yoga or yogic principles.  When I first spied it, I scratched my head, struggling to make the connection.  And then I saw the mass of comments from yoga students saying how great it was; how this inspires them to develop their yoga practice; what a great, strong body she has; what a fantastic role model this presents for a ‘healthy’ body and for the mental qualities of determination and self-discipline.

Interestingly, these responses sent my manipura chakra into a fit of pranic vomiting.  I had to employ some concentrated abdominal breathing to calm it right down.  But a knot remains.  It seems I cannot detach.

Why do I feel so incensed?  Am I envious?  Maybe.  Or maybe I’ve fallen prey to the kind of fundamentalism I’ve always so vehemently opposed, clinging to purist ideas about what yoga ‘should’ be and wanting to enforce them from my pulpit onto the ‘uneducated’ (my ego is a super snob).

So I return to my books.  Dr Rishi Vivekananda comforts me slightly when he writes, ‘’No pain no gain… may be a fundamental rule of the sport of masochism, but it has no place in yoga.’  Bless you Vivekananda, I really needed to hear that.  And so do all the other ordinary people in the world who aspire to know and appreciate themselves beyond the appearance and function of their physical anatomy.

UNSOLICITED LECTURE ALERT: in the very beginning, yoga postures were introduced to help the body develop health and vitality on the premise that an unhealthy body acted as an obstacle to self-realisation.  Being healthy and vital meant that one could sit comfortably in a meditation asana for long periods of time.  Without physical distractions and discomforts, the yogi was better able to withdraw the senses from the physical world, to draw the awareness inward in order to perceive higher and more subtle levels of experience.  The focus was not on the over-development of strength; or on fitness alone; and definitely not on developing some kind of attractive physical appearance (insert ‘matron’ voice here).  The ultimate goal was not physical at all – but spiritual.  The physical practices were a means to that end.

And now it seems the physical practices have become the end – the ultimate goal for the mainstream student who seems largely uninterested in the emotional, psychological, physiological or spiritual aspects of practice.

Sure, growing large muscles and training the body to balance in challenging postures does require self-discipline and will – desirable mental strengths.  Perhaps though, it takes greater mental strength and discipline to honestly ask of one’s self ‘Why do I need my body to look this way?  Why do I need to show the world my strength?  Why do I feel inadequate if I do not fit the picture?’

These are the types of questions that a holistic approach to yoga can answer.  Yoga is about the evolution of the individual on all levels of being – the physical, the mental, the emotional, the energetic, the intuitive, the spiritual.  It is about the renunciation of the desires of the ego. And it is achieved through a variety of practices – asanas, breathing practices, meditations, mantra, kirtan, karma yoga…  not simply through strength-based physical practice.

Stopping at the bottom of the rung – the physical rung – means never climbing higher.  It means never seeing what the view looks like from the top.  The goal is not to develop muscles or to look good.  And if it is, then this excludes a whole band of students from yoga – older people, people with disabilities, people with illnesses.  What are those people – chopped liver?  Inclusiveness is one of the many lovely things about yoga.  Anyone can do it.

There is a trace of yoga in this picture if we consider how it symbolises the capacity in all of us to surpass our limitations and reach our full potential.   But I think the dynamic changes by the fact that the lovely lady is wearing such little clothing – it puts the focus on the appearance of the physical body.  Not only that – potential is not something we pursue solely on a physical level.  What if reaching our full potential relates to something emotional – like being able to love oneself or other people?  It’s not one idea.

This picture asks us to do the exact opposite of what yoga asks of us by encouraging us to value the superficial.

For those of you at the back of the room – THIS IS NOT YOGA – RAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAHHHHHAAAAAA.

So.  After that self-involved rant, it’s back to the drawing board for me to develop some awareness around my own emotional reactions around this issue; to detach from the desires of my own ego, its own need to control how yoga is perceived and how others practice it; and to use my practices to restore some inner balance and harmony.  Perhaps it is time for the patron saint to step down off the dias and feed manipura some pepto bismol.

Maybe it would help if I pumped some iron?  Now… where did I put that g-string…

©The Yoga Experiment

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Yoga Space

Creating a yoga space can be a lovely thing to do to keep you connected with yoga in your daily life.  A yoga space can contain anything that reminds you of yoga.  A yoga space can be a shrine, or a corner of a room, or an item on a bookshelf – anything that draws your consciousess to a state of calm and well-being; anything that fosters a sense of gratitude or love or joy within you.  For some, it might even be an empty space!  There are no rules around it.  Like yoga, it is a personal experience.

The yoga spaces in my home seem to have evolved quite unconsciously.  I have a habit of collecting objects at church fetes and op shops.  Many of my spaces contain items I have created myself, indulging my love of crafts.  I love colour.  Colour warms me inside and out.

I’ve become quite a collector of cushions.  When I ran out of lounge space, I started making cushion piles on the floor around the skirting boards.  Cushion stacks remind me of the ashram where I studied yoga.  They have a practical purpose (great for propping under the tailbone to align the spine for meditation!) but I like the aesthetics, especially of the lovely warm colours and different patterns.  I got 3 of these cushions at my local St Vincent de Paul op-shop.  They cost around $2-$3 each.  The covers got a good wash and away we went.

Candles… yum!  I am a sucker for candles and candle holders.  There is something lovely about the ritual of lighting a candle.  I don’t know what it is but I don’t need to.  I light a candle in my room every day.  I light a bunch when I have friends over.  They seem to create a beautiful and calm atmosphere.  In the background here is my tibetan singing bowl – a magnificent gift from my parents for my 40th birthday last year.  I still can’t play it.  But I’ve added it to my list of things to do.  I’d love to play it for my students during meditations.  It makes a sound that seems to resonate with some deep part of the human consciousness. It’s a profoundly comforting sound.

I have a thing for Ganesha.  I’m probably the least ‘spiritual’ person you’ll ever come across but for some reason, I am so attracted to Hindu art, I keep collecting bits and pieces.  Again, I love the colours and the whimsical nature of the paintings and illustrations.  Ganesha is known as the ‘remover of obstacles’, as patron of the arts and sciences, and the God of intellect and wisdom (golly-gee… no wonder I can’t get enough of him!).  This postcard was given to me by my lovely friend Katie (aka Yogachakra) who inspired me to train to be a yoga teacher.   I bought the frame for a dollar from my beloved St Vincent’s.  The candle was a valentine’s day gift from my precious boyfriend who is a total non-yogi bloke’s bloke but who seems to, against all odds, know just what speaks to me (it is berry scented – yum!!).

Another precious cargo – my yoga texts.  These are a source of unending inspiration for me.  I dip into them daily, both to help me with my teaching, and to inspire my own personal practice.  These fabulous retro bambi bookends I found at a car boot sale at $15 for the set (bargain!!).  Yoga texts and bambi are an unlikely coupling.  But then again, maybe not.  They speak to the child in me.  Maslow (the great social psychologist) declared that having a healthy relationship with the childish/playful part of the self is an important factor in self-actualisation.  Yoga tradition also directs us to take ourselves lightly.  (It also guides us not to attach to material things… I’m still working on that one… hehe).

Yoga in the garden.  I can’t recall where I picked up this little fella but he is sitting amongst by beloved succulents in my balcony garden (along with many other little buddhas hiding among my pot plants).  When I look at him, I am reminded of where I want to go; of what I hope to attain for myself.  He has a book in his hand – a representation of knowledge.  He is my little jnana yogi – seeking answers through his own experiences; looking inward to try to know himself better; seeking meaning in life.

I have more yoga spaces to share.  I will do so along the way.  I hope you have enjoyed this taste of my yoga spaces.  I hope it inspires you to create spaces of your own.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Using a lion to tame a monkey

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‘The eastern warriors say that when a lion hears a gunshot, it lifts its head and looks around to discover where the shot came from.  But when a monkey hears a gunshot, it shrieks in fear and anxiously begins to check its body to see if it’s been wounded.’  Andy Caponigro, The Miracle of Breath.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  I’d like to say I’m the lion but truth is… I’m pure monkey. Yep, <sigh> I’m a shrieker.

Monkeys are creatures of anxiety.  It’s not their fault.  They’re genetically programmed to be hyper-vigilant.  Otherwise, if they just sat around relaxing all the time and not paying attention, they’d get eaten up by stronger things.  Human beings are a 96% genetic match with chimpanzees, so it makes sense that we’d be walking around (minus dragging of knuckles) with some echoes of that anxious drive for survival within us.  We’re more monkey than lion, put it that way.  And like monkeys, our survival is very much dependent on others of our kind, so our anxieties are not only linked to subconscious predatory dangers but also to social and emotional factors such as social acceptance.

I digress.  What are we talking about?  Ah, yes, anxiety.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter why it exists in excessive doses in many of us.  The fact is, living with a little bit of monkey can be adaptive but living in pure monkey mode can be an exhausting.  It can affect the health and balance of the body on all levels.  The mind and the senses are always on high alert, waiting for the next conflict, or rejection, or judgement, or criticism.  The emotional switch is turned on to REACT rather than to RESPOND; we can become hyper-sensitive to others, easily offended, paranoid, defensive; we swing from enormous, joyous highs to torturous, dark lows. The muscles of the body are excessively tensed and ready to fight or flee so we develop pains and tensions, headaches, stomach aches, back ache, neck pain.  The internal chemistry of the body is flooded with stress hormones that if prolonged, can mess with our physiology, putting the heart under pressure, switching off our capacity to digest properly and disturbing the endocrine system which very much governs the health of the entire human body.   Above all this, anxiety like this hurts.  It hurts the heart.  It turns living into a matter of endurance rather than enjoyment.

The question is: what can we do about it?  (Apart from drink more wine, gobble more drugs, eat more chocolate biscuits, buy more things, clean more surfaces, mentally enact violent fantasies on complete strangers, climb under the doona and curl up in the foetal position…).

My answer is simple: borrow from the lion.  If he’s so cool, calm and collected and unaffected by gunshots and all other manner of frightening stimuli then why not steal from his bag of tricks?  Lions are courageous (a luxury afforded to those at the top of the food chain); they are stately; they move slowly, switching on the adrenaline only when necessary.  While monkeys swing erratically about up in the trees, the lion is confident and grounded.  The stability of the lion is unshakeable.

Simhasana starring the beautiful Jemina

Traditional yoga recognised the strength of the lion and embodied it in a posture known in Sanskrit as Simhasana – ‘lion pose’.  I hereby prescribe Simhasana for any person like me, who finds they have the monkey on their back more often than not.  Practise this pose daily for three to five minutes, or in moments of heightened anxiety.  See if it brings some calmness back to your being.

Instructions:

Kneel with the buttocks resting on the heels of both feet.  Ensure the big toes are touching each other.  Then separate the knees about 45 cm apart.  Lean forward and place the palms of the hands face down on the floor between the knees with the fingers pointing in towards the body (if this is painful on the wrists then just keep the fingers pointing forward or even keep the hands resting the knees).  Straighten the arms and slightly arch the back (no strain!), resting the weight of the body mostly on the arms.  Tilt the head back slightly to create a little tension in the muscles along the front of the neck (don’t tilt if you have a neck injury or if it causes pain).  Close the eyes and if it feels comfortable, rest the internal gaze on the eyebrow centre (you can move in and out of this gaze position if the eyes feel strained by it at any time).  The mouth is closed.  Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose.  Relax the whole body and mind.

And ok, maybe you’ll never completely be a lion and the monkey will always be lurking there within but one thing we do know about monkeys is that they’re really good at learning so… train the monkey.  The more you train it, the better it learns, until one day the learning becomes the natural response.  I truly believe you can teach the monkey to be a lion.  A lion with a penchant for bananas.

©The Yoga Experiment